BY JOHN BLOODWOOD
(Note: this letter represents only my personal views. I have no legal training nor public administration experience. I am, in every way, a lay-person.)
Everyone should ask “How can the proposed nuisance code be misconstrued and used against me?” (Then go submit comments.) In its current form, it seems there are a lot of ways.1
A great nuisance code should exhibit two attributes: precise execution and community-driven intent. An imprecise nuisance code leaves wiggle-room which creates conflict between citizens and over-eager complaint-issuers (or inspectors). A nuisance code that is not community-driven will alienate portions of the community, which will engender non-compliance.
Precision matters – there should be no ambiguity about what a “dismantled” vehicle is. I would rather not argue about whether missing door-handle constitutes a “dismantled” (and therefore 1/3rd inoperable…somehow) vehicle. A legal document warrants precision and unambiguous language. If a “broken window” is actually shorthand for “shattered/missing” but not “cracked from hail damage,” the longer definition ought to be used.2 Otherwise, 5-10 years from now a new overeager code enforcement official may issue citations that go against the intent of the code’s authors. Ultimately, this could end up as more costly lawsuits against the county.
My concern is that the current draft nuisance code lacks precision in many critical ways. Certainly much has been written on this through other letters and through comments shared with DPS, which are also available at https://www.lacchp18update.org/. I commend a string of comments correcting many grammar issues – in the court of law, these matter; particularly when violations can lead to a criminal complaint in Municipal Court. (How many county residents might run into issues at the Lab because of new criminal records? How might that affect the Lab’s mission?) My fear is that without continued public comment, the sections that still remain ambiguous will stay ambiguous.
Community buy-in matters equally, if not more-so. A nuisance code ought to be the equivalent of the greatest common factor of community members’ preferences. Karen might hate to see overgrown xeriscaped lawns, and also wants to walk down sidewalks unobstructed. Chad wants to store some building materials in his front yard, and also wants to walk down sidewalks unobstructed. A codified nuisance (at the legally enforceable level) should only dictate nuisances that both Karen and Chad find in common (obvious and objective health and safety problems, no 110 dB backyard concerts at 3 a.m., etc.)
Has there been enough community buy-in for the proposed changes? Based on conversations with neighbors, co-workers, and observing Facebook, there hasn’t. Certainly there is significant push-back on many aesthetics items or things many believe only belong in an HOA. My concern is that these code changes may be bending towards opinions that don’t truly represent the community. Are there plans to do an “exit survey” to gain feedback on changes from a representative sample of community members? Will the code reflect the community?
Los Alamos was founded as a town of over-educated tinkerers. That tinkerer tradition has continued, in the same 1950s houses that early scientists and engineers resided in. It is truly a unique place “where discoveries are made.” It seems to me that the code update is written for any average community rather than Los Alamos specifically. If the reason behind outlawing building materials in the front yard really is a concern that thefts will increase (the broken window theory), is there supporting research about crimes-of-opportunity rising in remote, well-employed communities that already have abnormally low crime rates despite many apparent nuisance code violations (just under 1,000 per year, according to the consultant’s “Research & Best Practices” document)?3 The code should reflect Los Alamos, not subject Los Alamos to a mixture of other counties’ codes.
I’ll conclude with a final concern: low-income support. Violation of the updated nuisance code may lead to costly repairs and maintenance. And while some repairs are worthwhile, many will see the aesthetic repairs as a waste of needed resources. Sure, a fitted car cover might only be $50. But to a fixed income, working-class individual, that’s a lot. As someone now on a Lab income, I often need to remind myself of what it was like living below the poverty line. It’s really hard. The Department of Public Utilities has a low-income assistance program for a reason. That the program exists demonstrates an interesting mechanism for nuisance code support of low-income persons. If the county proceeds with this nuisance code update, I sincerely hope they consider using a similar “nuisance assistance program” to help low-income individuals finance sidewalk repairs and other nuisance violations. Afterall, if it’s a nuisance to the community – why shouldn’t the community help resolve the issue when external support is needed?
1 Improper car parking or storage on private property, any item left in the front yard, any item that is visible from a public place (or from a neighbor’s house or yard, good luck if you’ve got a chain link fence), RV or trailers may need to be hidden below a 6ft fence in the backyard (as I read the code, think about that height restriction), a seemingly arbitrary 12% APR on a lien for violations, “Weeds” or xeriscaped lawns, plants or trees overhanging sidewalks up to 8ft in the air, requiring custom-fit car covers, requiring ability to demonstrate “active” repair of an inoperable vehicle within the last 30 days (shouldn’t burden of proof be on the accuser?), etc.
2 To be clear, the consultants have responded positively to this specific comment, and many other comments in their presentation materials at https://www.lacchp18update.org/. Their process to navigate the project is commendable. But, problems still remain.
3https://www.lacchp18update.org/_files/ugd/0fefb3_c8fba73c488d4d81b8ad25db57a7dd6e.pdf, a detailed & interesting read including the revision process, which would work great for less unique communities.